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How Disaster-Tested H-E-B Navigates The Coronavirus Pandemic

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
A long line of customers waited for an Austin store to open the morning after the city ordered restaurants to close and offer takeout service only.

From Texas Standard:

When it comes to disaster, no one beats Texas. Federal Emergency Management Agency records show that since 1953, Texas has filed more federal disaster declarations than any other state: a total of 355.

And few Texas retailers have been as battle-tested by the state's natural disaster history as H-E-B, the San Antonio-based grocery chain that began as a single store in 1905 and has grown to more than 300 stores in Texas and Mexico. Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared across the Gulf of Mexico towards Texas in 2005, H-E-B has invested heavily in emergency management teams, technology and strategies, making them among the first employers – often the first – to reopen after a storm.

But unlike the floods, evacuations, hurricanes and tornadoes of the past, the coronavirus pandemic has posed unique inventory and safety challenges for local governments and for retailers, including disaster veterans like H-E-B. 

"There is not a business in the world that wishes to operate in these circumstances," says Dya Campos, H-E-B's director of public and government affairs. But Campos credits the company's emergency preparedness division for quickly changing up their own emergency routines. 

“In a typical disaster situation, we're all together in one location,” Campos says. “But due to the nature of this crisis we have separated into several different emergency operation centers around the city of San Antonio in order to adhere to social distancing practices.” 

She adds that H-E-B’s emergency teams began reaching out early to global counterparts in Europe, particularly Spain and Italy, monitoring the progress of COVID-19. From them, the company picked up lessons learned before the virus reached Texas, where as of early Thursday, nearly 1,000 confirmed cases and 12 deaths were reported

“We continue every day to learn from retailers who are a few weeks ahead of us going through the same type of situation and we're implementing very early tactics that they have shared with us,” Campos says. 

Meanwhile, the grocery chain moved quickly to meet soaring demand as Texas customers poured into stores, stripping shelves clean within hours. H-E-B, along with other grocery retailers, began limiting store hours, opening at 8 a.m. and closing at 8 p.m. to give inventory a chance to catch up. They began restricting the number of items customers could buy to reduce shortages. And they began hiring more temporary workers, so more customers could use their curbside service to help with the spread of the virus. 

“We believe that the faster that Texas can halt the spread and slow the spread, the faster that we can get back to business as usual,” Campos says. 

While other stores began using “senior” store hours, H-E-B instead turned quickly to their newest partner, the delivery app Favor, and began offering a senior delivery service through it that costs older customers a $10 tip plus the cost of their groceries. That tip goes directly into the delivery person’s pocket, Campos says. 

Older customers who cannot access through a computer or smartphone can call 1-833-397-0080 and set up the service. 

Campos also has these tips for customers: 

Try to use curbside delivery. “We would prefer for customers to stay home,” she says.  

If a family needs to come, send only one person “to expedite the shopping experience and to also keep our customers and our partners safe.”

Also, customers should turn to restaurants more. Despite stay-at-home orders issued by major cities, restaurants are allowed to remain open for take-out. 

“What people need to know is that access to food is plentiful. Grocery stores remain open and so do restaurants,” Campos says. “All of our restaurants are open for takeout and delivery. They're here to serve Texas just as much as H-E-B is.”

Campos also acknowledges the challenges in keeping their own staff safe. H-E-B workers are already among those confirmed to have contracted the virus. 

“We need our communities to understand that social distancing is the key to defeating this virus,” she says.

H-E-B customers have been documenting the pandemic, and their love for the store, on social media.

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